Band of Outsiders is cool. From the minute it opens to a rapidly edited montage of the main characters faces you can feel it, this is effortlessly cool cinema. Band of Outsiders is about boredom, it’s about looking for purpose, it’s about love, it’s about crime, it’s about good-looking people in good looking clothes and in the hands of a skilled filmmaker that is almost always cool. But in the hands of legendary French director Jean-Luc Godard, Band of Outsiders isn’t just cool, it’s smart, it’s sad, and in its best moments it’s youth captured on-screen.
Godard’s 1964 film is the tale of two young men, Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur), who fall in love with Odile (Anna Karina) and enlist her into a robbery of the owners of the suburban villa she lives in. As Franz and Arthur drive through the streets of Paris an omniscient narrator (Godard) fill us in on the background of the film. The narrator is an almost literary figure, with the narration at times explaining characters actions and thoughts but also poetically describing the setting of certain scenes. Arthur and Franz arrive at an English class where they meet Odile, talk to her about the money in her home and convince her to hang out with them later that day. After Odile goes home and examines the money she meets up with Franz and Arthur, and they go to a cafe.
That’s it, that’s about half of the film. Like Godard’s debut film Breathless this is another film without much plot, but a lot of story. The first half of the film features several long takes in which so much is revealed by the actions, movements, and dialogue of the characters that it’s easy to get lost in the film. The prime example of this is a scene where the three main characters sit at a table in a cafe, as characters leave and come back to the table we see Franz and Arthur compete for Odile’s affection shown visually by attempting to sit net to her. This scene culminates in Arthur calling for a minute of silence, in which all sound is suddenly cut. Band of Outsiders doesn’t often demonstrate the rule breaking for which Godard is famous for but when it does, like in the aforementioned scene and in various moments where characters break the fourth wall, it serves to make the movie even better.
Band of Outsiders most interesting scene is also its most famous. While at the cafe, the three main characters perform a dance. The scene mixes narration, sound editing, action, framing, and acting in a whirlwind single take that creates something more than the sum of its parts. Seen as a part of the whole film, it serves as an encapsulation of the film itself, cool and fun on the surface but a little sad and lonely underneath. For as much as the film is cool, fun, and playful on the surface this belies a real sadness underneath. Franz and Arthur are often cruel to Odile, calling her stupid, mocking her, and in the climatic heist hitting her. Odile is often reluctant to go along with the men’s plans but does so anyway after being pressured into doing them. All three characters seem aimless, bored, and desperately lonely. Odile and Franz have a conversation in which Franz talks about how people never form a whole despite their best efforts. This undercurrent of sadness and loneliness lends the film depth and the characters become much more well-rounded because of it. Godard captures the way so much of people’s youth, or at least my youth, was spent doing things just because we were bored, trying to have fun and be cool. There is a sadness and loneliness in boredom, and a happiness in the action boredom leads to, and in Band of Outsiders Godard puts this on-screen.
Through out the film Godard continues to demonstrate why he is one of cinemas legendary figures. Part of Frances new wave Godard is a master with the camera using it to create vivid shots, often panning to reveal things that were just out of sight. The long takes allow characters to flow in and out of scenes and when combined with the fascinating dialogue pull the viewer deeply in to the film. There are several scenes where Godard allows the action to unfold in a wide shot, with the actors almost in the background, making the viewer feel as though they are watching this all from afar, as if they are spying on these characters. Every shot in this film feels effortlessly blocked and framed.
The few complaints I have about this film concern its ending. The last half-hour or so of the film concerns the actual robbery of the house. Perhaps it is because of the narrative slowness of the rest of the film but the robbery can feel a bit rushed and out of nowhere. Furthermore, the climax of the film, while obviously an homage to the pulp novels and B movies referenced through out the rest of the movie, feels like a bit of a cop-out. But even here there are still some fantastic sequences, including one where the camera stays motionless in one room while people move in and out with the action of the heist occurring off-screen. The other main complain I have is that at times Odile can seem underdeveloped, and sometimes I’m not sure if I totally buy her feelings towards Franz and Arthur.
For the most part though, Arthur, Franz, and Odile feel very real. The interactions between Arthur and Franz instantly seem like those between long time friends. Odile does feel like a lost, bored, young woman even if her separate romances with Franz and Arthur can feel a bit rushed. In a movie in which character interactions matter so much more than how the characters move within a story it matters that they seem real, and Band of Outsiders pulls this off 99% of the time. Jean-Luc Godard is one of the best directors of all time, and Band of Outsiders shows why by creating one of the most vivid and engrossing vision of youth on-screen. Band of Outsiders is a film every one should see.
Band of Outsiders (1964)
Bande à part (original title)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Sami Frey, Claude Brasseur, and Anna Karina.